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RFK, Two Minutes to Midnight: The Very Last Hurrah

Two Minutes to Midnight: The Very Last Hurrah
June 13, 1968

LOS ANGELES — It was, of course, two minutes to midnight and the Embassy Room of the Ambassador Hotel was rowdy with triumph. Red and blue balloons drifted up through three golden chandeliers to bump against a gilded ceiling. Young girls with plastic Kennedy boaters chanted like some lost reedy chorus from an old Ray Charles record. The crowd was squashed against the bandstand, a smear of black faces and Mexican-American faces and bearded faces and Beverly Hills faces crowned with purple hair. Eleven TV cameras were turning, their bright blue arclights changing the crowd into a sweaty stew. Up on the bandstand, with his wife standing just behind him, was Robert Kennedy.

“I’d like to express my high regard for Don Drysdale,” Kennedy said. Drysdale had just won his sixth straight shutout. “I hope we have his support in this campaign.” There was a loud cheer. He thanked Rafer Johnson and Rosey Grier (cheers) and Jesse Unruh (timid cheer) and Cesar Chavez (very loud cheers), and he thanked the staff and the volunteers and the voters, and the crowd hollared after every sentence. It was the sort of scene that Kennedys have gone through a hundred times and more: on this night, at least, it did not appear that there would be a last hurrah. Kennedy had not scored a knockout over Eugene McCarthy; but a points decision at least would keep his campaign going.

“I thank all of you,” Kennedy was saying. “Mayor Yorty has just sent a message that we have been here too long already” (laughter). “So my thanks to all of you, and now it’s on to Chicago …”

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I was at the rear of the stand, next to George Plimpton. Kennedy put his thumb up to the audience, brushed his hair, made a small V with his right hand, and turned to leave. The crowd started shouting: “We want Bobby! We want Bobby!” Plimpton and I went down three steps, and turned left through a gauntlet of Kennedy volunteers and private cops in brown uniforms.

We found ourselves in a long grubby area called the pantry. It was the sort of place where Puerto Ricans, blacks and Mexican-Americans usually work to fill white stomachs. There were high bluish fluorescent lights strung across the ceiling, a floor of raw sandy-colored concrete, pale dirty walls. On the right were a rusty ice machine and shelves filled with dirty glasses. On the left, an archway led into the main kitchen and under the arch a crowd of Mexican American cooks and busboys waited to see Kennedy. Against the left wall, three table-sized serving carts stood end to end, and at the far end were two doors leading to the press room where Kennedy was going to talk to reporters.

Kennedy moved slowly into the area, shaking hands, smiling, heading a platoon of reporters, photographers, staffers, the curious, TV men. I was in front of him, walking backward. I saw him turn to his left and shake the hand of a small Mexican cook. We could still hear the chants of “We want Bobby!” from the Embassy Room. The cook was smiling and pleased.

Then a pimply messenger arrived from the secret filthy heart of America. He was curly haired, wearing a pale blue sweatshirt and bluejeans, and he was planted with his right foot forward and his right arm straight out and he was firing a gun.

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The scene assumed a kind of insane fury, all jump cuts, screams, noise, hurtling bodies, blood. The shots went pap-pap-pap-pap-pap, small sharp noises like a distant firefight or the sound of firecrackers in a backyard. Rosey Grier of the Los Angeles Rams came from nowhere and slammed his great bulk into the gunman, crunching him against a serving table. George Plimpton grabbed the guy’s arm, and Rafer Johnson moved to him, right behind Bill Barry, Kennedy’s friend and security chief, and they were all making deep animal sounds and still the bullets came.

“Get the gun, get the gun.”

“Rafer, get the gun!”

“Get the fucking gun!”

“No,” someone said. And you could hear the stunned horror in the voice, the replay of odd scenes, the muffle of drums. “No. No. Nooooooooooo!”

We knew then that America had struck again. In this slimy little indoor alley in the back of a gaudy ballroom, in this shabby reality behind the glittering facade, Americans were doing what they do best: killing and dying, and cursing because hope doesn’t last very long among us.

I saw Kennedy lurch against the ice machine, and then sag, and then fall forward slowly, to be grabbed by someone, and I knew then that he was dead. He might linger a few hours, or a few days; but his face reminded me somehow of Benny Paret the night Emile Griffith hammered him into unconsciousness. Kennedy’s face had a kind of sweet acceptance to it, the eyes understanding that it had come to him, the way it had come to so many others before him. The price of the attempt at excellence was death. You saw a flicker of that understanding on his face, as his life seeped out of a hole in the back of his skull, to spread like spilled wine across the scummy concrete floor.

It was as if all of us there went simultaneously insane: a cook was screaming, “Kill him, kill him now, kill him, kill him!” I tried to get past Grier, Johnson, Plimpton and Barry to get at the gunman. The Jack Ruby in me was rising up, white, bright, with a high-singing sound in the ears, and I wanted to damage that insane little bastard they were holding. I wanted to break his face, to rip away flesh, to hear bone break as I pumped punches into that pimpled skin. Budd Schulberg was next to me; I suppose he was trying to do the same. Just one punch. Just one for Dallas. Just one for Medgar Evers, just one for Martin Luther King. Just one punch. Just one. One.

Kennedy was lying on the floor, with black rosary beads in his hand, and blood on his fingers. His eyes were still open, and as his wife Ethel reached him, to kneel in an orange-and-white dress, his lips were moving. We heard nothing. Ethel smoothed his face, running ice cubes along his cheeks. There was a lot of shouting, and a strange chorus of high screaming. My notes showed that Kennedy was shot at 12:10 and was taken out of that grubby hole at 12:32. It seemed terribly longer.

I don’t remember how it fits into the sequence, but I do have one picture of Rosey Grier holding the gunman by his neck, choking life out of him.

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“Rosey, Rosey, don’t kill him. We want him alive. Don’t kill him, Rosey, don’t kill him.”

“Kill the bastard, kill that sum of a bitch bastard,” a Mexican busboy yelled.

“Don’t kill him, Rosey.”

“Where’s the doctor? Where in Christ’s name is the doctor?”

Grier decided not to kill the gunman. They had him up on a serving table at the far end of the pantry, as far as they could get him from Kennedy. Jimmy Breslin and I were standing up on the table, peering into the gunman’s face. His eyes were rolling around, and then stopping, and then rolling around again. The eyes contained pain, flight, entrapment, and a strange kind of bitter endurance. I didn’t want to hit him anymore.

“Where the fuck is the doctor? Can’t they get a fucking doctor?”

“Move back.”

“Here comes a doctor, here’s a doctor.”

“MOVE BACK!”

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Kennedy was very still now. There was a thin film of blood on his brow. They had his shoes off and his shirt open. The stretcher finally arrived, and he trembled as they lifted him, his lips moved, and the flashbulbs blinked off one final salvo and he was gone.

The rest was rote: I ran out out into the lobby and picked up my brother Brian and we rushed to the front entrance. A huge black man, sick with grief and anger and bitterness, was throwing chairs around. Most landed in the pool. The young Kennedy girls were crying and wailing, knowing, I suppose, what the guys my age discovered in Dallas: youth was over. “Sick,” one girl kept saying. “Sick. Sick. What kind of country is this? Sick. Sick.” Outside, there were cops everywhere, and sirens. The cops were trying to get one of the wounded into a taxi. The cabbie didn’t want to take him, afraid, I suppose, that blood would sully his nice plastic upholstery.

When we got through the police barricades, we drove without talk to the Hospital of the Good Samaritan, listening to the news on the radio. The unspoken thought was loudest: the country’s gone. Medgar Evers was dead, Malcolm X was dead, Martin Luther King was dead, Jack Kennedy was dead, and now Robert Kennedy was dying. The hell with it. The hatred was now general. I hated that pimpled kid in that squalid cellar enough to want to kill him. He hated Kennedy the same way. That kid and the bitter Kennedy haters were the same. All those people in New York who hated Kennedy’s guts, who said “eccch” when his name was mentioned, the ones who creamed over Murray Kempton’s vicious diatribes these past few months: they were the same. When Evers died, when King died, when Jack Kennedy died, all the bland pundits said that some good would come of it in some way, that the nation would go through a catharsis, that somehow the bitterness, the hatred, the bigotry, the evil of racism, the glib violence would be erased. That was bullshit. We will have our four-day televised orgy of remorse about Robert Kennedy and then it will be business as usual.

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You could feel that as we drove through the empty L.A. streets, listening to the sirens screaming in the night. Nothing would change. Kennedy’s death would mean nothing. It was just another digit in the great historical pageant that includes the slaughter of Indians, the plundering of Mexico, the enslavement of black people, the humiliation of Puerto Ricans. Just another digit. Nothing would come of it. While Kennedy’s life was ebbing out of him, Americans were dropping bombs and flaming jelly on Orientals. While the cops fingerprinted the gunmen, Senator Eastland’s Negro subjects were starving. While the cops made chalk marks on the floor of the pantry, the brave members of the National Rifle Association were already explaining that people commit crimes, guns don’t (as if Willie Mays could hit a homerun without a bat). These cowardly bums claim Constitutional rights to kill fierce deer in the forests, and besides, suppose the niggers come to the house and we don’t have anything to shoot them with? Suppose we have to fight a nigger man-to-man?

America the Beautiful: with crumby little mini-John Waynes carrying guns to the woods like surrogate penises. Yes: the kid I saw shoot Kennedy was from Jordan, was diseased with some fierce hatred for Jews. Sam Yorty, who hated Kennedy, now calls Kennedy a great American and blames the Communists. Hey Sam: you killed him too. The gun that kid carried was American. The city where he shot down a good man was run by Sam Yorty. How about keeping your fat pigstink mouth shut.

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At the approach to the Good Samaritan Hospital the cops had strung red flares across the gutter, and were stopping everyone. A crowd of about 75 people were on the corner when we arrived, about a third of them black. I went in, past those black people who must have felt that there was no white man at all with whom they could talk. A mob of reporters was assembling at the hospital entrance. The cops were polite, almost gentle, as if they sensed that something really bad had happened, and that many of these reporters were friends of the dying man.

Most of the hospital windows were dark, and somewhere up there Robert Kennedy was lying on a table while strangers stuck things into his brain looking for a killer’s bullet. We were friends, and I didn’t want him to die but if he were to be a vegetable, I didn’t want him to live either.

We drove home, through the wastelands around L.A. and the canyons through the mountains to the south. When I got home, my wife was asleep, the TV still playing out its record of the death watch. Frank Reynolds of ABC, a fine reporter and a compassionate man, was so upset he could barely control his anger. I called some friends and poured a drink. Later I talked to my old man, who came to this country from Ireland in flight from the Protestant bigots of Belfast 40 years ago. I suppose he loved John Kennedy even more than I did and he has never really been the same since Dallas. Now it had happened again.

“If you see Teddy,” he said, “tell him to get out of politics. The Kennedys are too good for this country.”

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I remembered the night in 1964, in that bitter winter after John Kennedy’s murder, when Robert Kennedy appeared at a St. Patrick’s Day dinner in Scranton, Pennsylvania. He talked about the Irish, and the long journey that started on the quays of Wexford and ended in Parkland Hospital. He reminded them of the days when there were signs that said “No Irish Need Apply” (and it was always to his greatest dismay that so many sons of Irishmen he came across in New York were bigots and haters). Bob told them about Owen O’Neill, an Irish patriot whose ideals had survived his martyrdom. Men were crying as he read the old Irish ballad:

Oh, why did you leave us, Owen?
Why did you die? …
We’re sheep without a shepherd,
When the snow shuts out the sky.
Oh, why did you leave us, Owen?
Why did you die?

I didn’t know. There was some sort of answer for John Kennedy, and another for Robert Kennedy. But I had learned that I knew nothing finally, that when my two young daughters present the bill to me in another 10 years, I won’t have much to say. I sat there drinking rum until I was drunk enough to forget that pimpled face cracking off the rounds into the body of a man who was a friend of mine. Finally, easily, with the sun up, I fell asleep on the couch. I didn’t have any tears left for America, but I suppose not many other Americans did either. ♦

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In a Wild True Crime Twist, an Ex-Cop Is Arrested in the Golden State Killer Case

Two months after the publication of Michelle McNamara’s true crime masterpiece, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer, and two years after the author’s untimely death, the Golden State Killer has allegedly been caught. As McNamara’s book exhaustingly detailed, GSK — a nickname she coined — was responsible for approximately 45 rapes and twelve murders in Northern and Southern California between 1976 and 1986. Police from various jurisdictions had few suspects or leads — until late yesterday, when word began to circulate that there had been a massive break in the case.

Today, at a press conference led by the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, investigators announced that 72-year-old Joseph James DeAngelo of the Sacramento neighborhood of Citrus Heights, was arrested on a warrant issued by Ventura County and has been charged with two counts of murder for the February 1978 deaths of Ryan and Katie Maggiore. The Ventura County D.A. also announced that they’ve filed capital murder charges again DeAngelo for the March 1980 murders of Lyman and Charlene Smith.

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“The answer was and always was gonna be in the DNA,” said Sacramento District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert. “We were looking for a needle in a haystack, we all knew the needle was there.… It is fitting that today is National DNA Day. We found that needle in a haystack. It was right here in Sacramento.”

According to Schubert and Sacramento Sheriff Scott Jones, law enforcement had been doing surveillance on DeAngelo when, last week, they were able to obtain “some discarded DNA” and “using current and innovative techniques” were able to positively ID DeAngelo. Jones did not indicate when or why DeAngelo became a suspect, but he and other law enforcement officials alluded to rapid, recent developments.

Some experts on the decades-long cold case, including McNamara, had considered the possibility that GSK might have worked in law enforcement — and it turns out they were right. DeAngelo was once a police officer — first with the Exeter Police Department from 1973 to 1976, when GSK is believed to have been ransacking houses in nearby Visalia. Then he went to work with the Auburn Police Department in 1976, shortly before the rapes began. He was fired from the Auburn Police Department in 1979, after being accused of shoplifting a can of dog repellant and a hammer from a Sacramento drug store. They are still investigating whether any of the crimes were committed while DeAngelo was on duty.

 

Those details are particularly sobering given that GSK’s initial modus operandi was to break into people’s houses in the middle of the night, while they were home. As the Daily Beast notes, two months after DeAngelo was fired, GSK stabbed a dog.

GSK mostly targeted couples; he would sexually assault the women while their significant others, and occasionally children, were tied up and gagged in another room. His known crimes in Northern California stopped short of murder; it wasn’t until he moved south that he began to kill his victims.

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For many years, the rapes in Northern California and the murders in Southern California were thought to be the work of two separate and unrelated suspects known as the East Area Rapist (EAR) and the Original Night Stalker (ONS). In 2001, new DNA tests confirmed that they were the work of one man, but a positive ID remained elusive. The FBI’s profile for GSK describes him as being approximately five-foot-ten, “familiar and proficient with firearms,” and someone who would now be between sixty and 75 years old. A side-by-side comparison of suspect sketches and a photograph of DeAngelo when he was a cop reveals a striking resemblance.

McNamara, a true crime journalist and blogger, became obsessed with the case back in 2011, when police confirmed yet another murder was linked to “one of the least known, yet most prolific serial offenders to ever operate in the United States.” She devoted five years of her life investigating and reporting on the case, and was in the middle of writing I’ll Be Gone in the Dark when she died in her sleep in April 2016. Her husband, actor Patton Oswalt, channeled his grief into ensuring that her book was finished and published; he enlisted her lead researcher, Paul Haynes, and investigative journalist Billy Jensen to pick up where McNamara had left off, and the book was released to critical acclaim in February 2018 and debuted at No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list.

McNamara was not mentioned by name at the press conference until a reporter asked whether the publication of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark two months ago contributed to an arrest finally being made in this forty-plus-year-old cold case.

“No,” said Sheriff Jones, though he did acknowledge that her work helped keep the case in the public eye.

Regardless, Oswalt is celebrating. In a video posted to Instagram, Oswalt — who was on a plane with Jensen, preparing to fly to Sacramento for the press conference — said, “I think you got him, Michelle.”

A post shared by Patton Oswalt (@balvenieboy) on

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California Screamin’: Conservatives Slam Golden State on Immigration

Attorney General Jeff Sessions, heretofore content to mutter darkly about sanctuary cities on Fox News, last week announced he was bringing suit against California for its laws protecting unauthorized immigrants, attacking them as a form of “nullification” and “secession,” a strange insult coming from a proud states’ rights advocate and supporter of the Lost Cause’s last gasps.

Though conservatives are supposed to favor tough immigration laws, it’s not at all clear that they favor targeting immigrants as the Trump administration has with its family-sundering ICE troopers. But they may be OK with targeting California, for which conservatives have had a hate on for years.

The conservative habit of hating on Cali comes and goes. On the one hand, Berkeley has been a right-wing swear word since Reagan ran the state in the 1960s, and who can forget Jeane Kirkpatrick denouncing “the San Francisco Democrats” at the 1984 GOP Convention?

Conservatives did cool it during the disastrous reigns of Republican governors Pete Wilson and proto-Trump Arnold Schwarzenegger — but then Californians rebelled and kicked a lot of Republicans out of office, so conservatives’ rage returned to full boil, and they’ve taken to calling the place a “failed state.”

You might think that’s an unfair rap to hang on the largest economy in the nation (and the sixth largest in the world!), with famous natural and cultural beauties that are seen by tens of millions of tourists every year. But they’re committed to it nonetheless.

Even before Sessions’s announcement, the right-wing world had been churning out slurs like Jennifer Van Laar’s “California: Further Proof That Liberal Policies Ruin Everything They Touch” at RedState. Van Laar cited Kerry Jackson’s Los Angeles Times column calling “liberal California” the “poverty capital of America” — an example of the familiar right-wing trope in which the author pretends to care that some blue jurisdiction has, along with a robust business environment and general prosperity, a lot of poor people — a concern such writers never express about the wealth disparities in, say, Alabama.

The presence of poors, however, was just Van Laar’s MacGuffin for a jeremiad attacking the left coast for its “No-Strings-Attached Welfare,” “Land-use Regulations,” “Energy Regulation,” and — the greatest horror of all! — “Minimum Wage Hikes,” for which Van Laar claimed “the implications…are already known” to be negative without providing a citation, perhaps because she knew many sources say the opposite.

Conservatives also like to point out that homeless people, whom the larger California cities tolerate instead of trying to starve them to death, as redder jurisdictions do, aren’t able to maintain middle-class sanitary standards, leading to Fox News headlines like “‘National disgrace’: Community fights back as California overrun by homelessness, human waste, needles” and James Woods tweets like “People say to hell with #California, as if we deserve the needles-and-feces strewn streets gifted us by liberal #Democrats,” etc. You can imagine the effect of such reports on Republicans from Big Suburb, Missouri.

When Sessions threatened California, some conservatives directly endorsed his action. “Jeff Sessions Calls Out California’s Elected Leaders In A Take-No-Prisoners Speech,” wrote RedState. “Well, the federales have arrived!” cheered Rush Limbaugh, who interpreted Sessions’s announcement to mean, “We’re not asking you to violate whatever stupid liberal value set you’ve got. We’ll do it. But not if you get in the way, we’re gonna take you out.”

But in general, conservative rage was not directed so much toward the immigrants as at California for being so unapologetically liberal as to welcome Mexicans into its state.

“California Democrats Ready to War Again to Keep Their Slaves,” snarled iPatriot’s Dustin Koellhoffer. “The fools think they are America’s ‘economic engine’ when they have become America’s toilet.” Haw, guess he follows Fox News (or James Woods)! If Koellhoffer hasn’t won your heart with that, here he is on “the ‘brown people race’ [which] includes Mexicans, Hispanics, and Moslems who are all Caucasians, but who all want to destroy Christian America…an aptly named race because they are all as full of sh*t as the Democrats when it comes to truth, justice, and righteousness.” I’m amazed Trump hasn’t hired this guy.

Conservative Book Club ran a poll, “Should California Be Punished For Flouting Immigration Laws?” on a page featuring the California flag turned red with a hammer and sickle in the upper left corner.

Others just sat around the campfire and told their neighbors that they’d heard tell that Cal-i-for-ni-ay was a horrible place where no decent folk would want to live nohow.

At Townhall, Jeff Crouere claimed the state — I remind you, the economic powerhouse of the nation — was “an economic and cultural disaster” because it had “114,000 homeless people” (the state’s total population is 39.5 million), and “even a sizable portion of the film industry has moved from Hollywood to other states offering tax incentives and a better business climate,” a news flash from the 1990s.

Crouere’s other proof points were similarly relevant. Like many of the brethren, he dwelt at length on the undocumented immigrant who accidentally killed Kate Steinle, as if he were more representative of that population than, say, migrant workers or kitchen employees.

When U.S. News & World Report published a McKinsey ranking of states that put California at No. 32 overall and last for “quality of life” — a metric based, McKinsey said, on “natural environment” and “social environment,” by which standard No. 1 state was, get this, North Dakota — the brethren reacted with all the schadenfreude you’d expect.

A few conservative writers, perhaps worried that their readers might have actually been to California, took the trouble to put their complaints in the future or conditional tense. “While the economy is doing well at the current time, experts predict the recent uptick will not last because of high taxation rates and onerous regulations on businesses,” fudged Newsmax.

Former Republican congressman Allen West wrote, “Yes, California’s economy, as per the report, is still #4 in the Country, but for how long?” (Bonus West quote: “California is not just exporting raisins, walnuts, and wine. It is also exporting the failed philosophy of progressive socialism.”)

But most didn’t bother to qualify their remarks.

“One way to measure quality life is whether residents can even afford to have a roof over their heads, and by that standard, California is failing,” wrote Fox News, showing a picture of a woman living under a bridge.

“Liberalism Has Finally Gone Too Far in California…State’s Beyond Repair,” gibbered Conservative Tribune’s William Haupt III: “When they euphonize Prop 13 next election, this will be the holocaust of methodic genocide.… This will nail the coffin shut on the goose that laid the golden egg, as the few remaining entrepreneurs and tax-paying elites abandon California to escape the calamity of the liberal morgue…” etc.

“California has become a hellhole,” claimed Lynn Woolley of WB Daily. “Taxes are high. Los Angeles and other major cities are filled with homeless people who take bowel movements on public property that tourists are warned to avoid.”

One reason for all this misrepresentation is that it’s Trump time in the Republic, and all conservatives now follow the Leader in lying unashamedly about their enemies.

But I think there’s another reason why they beat up on California. Red states are notorious for immiserating their own citizens by blocking minimum wage hikes, demanding stingier Medicaid standards, making it easier for citizens to get killed with guns, etc.

It is fair to assume these right-wing governments expect their citizens to put up with this, not only because they are deranged by Republican hate- and fearmongering, but also because, being impoverished and insulated, these citizens have no experience of the different, less painful ways of life lived elsewhere, whether in Western Europe or in blue states here at home, and so know no better and have nothing with which to compare their treatment.

It may be that California’s obvious and well-publicized wealth and advancement is embarrassing to conservatives who want their voters to believe that the apex of human freedom and achievement is found in Fritters, Alabama, or Gopher Prairie, S.D. So they must tell their constituents that California is dirty, full of feces and Mexicans and in a state of collapse, and altogether a place they would hate to live.

Also, as Sessions’s suit shows, this administration is not shy about using its power, in immigration policy as well as in the environment and other areas, to make California more like the typical red state, thus making their portrayal come true.

 

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Southern California Mudslides

“No one thought it would ever get this bad,” said photographer Charlie Langella after documenting the deadly mudslides that hit Montecito in Santa Barbara County, California, on Tuesday. As of Friday morning, seventeen people were confirmed dead, with anywhere from five to forty-three missing as the Montecito sheriff’s office investigated reports.

“Just before sunset, I rode my bike as far as I could on Coast Village Road until the mud was too deep,” Langella reported. “The rest of the way I trekked through the mud while keeping my camera clicking, in awe of all the mud, debris, and destruction. Then the rain came again, adding to the water and mud. I was heartbroken to find out that the next morning the rescuers were pulling bodies out of the mud and wreckage that I had photographed the day before.”

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Going Coastal: Revisiting the Seventies SoCal of Eve Babitz’s “Sex and Rage”

Native Angeleno and besotted partisan of her hometown, the writer and polymath of pleasure Eve Babitz has often been defined by what she isn’t. She is the antithesis of Joan Didion, whose surveys of Southern California grimly chronicle anomie, and the inverse of Nathanael West, creator of some of Hollywood’s most grotesque residents. There are so few writers who love Los Angeles as much as Babitz does that perhaps her closest analogue, in terms of ardor for the city, is a fictional character in a movie: George, the unemployed architect played by Gary Lockwood in Jacques Demy’s Model Shop (1969). Driving up to the Hollywood Hills, George takes in a spectacular view of L.A., later remarking to a friend, “I was really moved by the geometry of the place, its conception, its baroque harmony. It’s a fabulous city.”

Growing up “tan, with streaky blond hair, and tar on the bottom of her feet,” Jacaranda Leven, the protagonist of Babitz’s kicky künstlerroman Sex and Rage — first published in 1979, and the third of her books to be reissued within the past two years, following Eve’s Hollywood (1974) and Slow Days, Fast Company (1977) — would probably like to take George surfing. “Jacaranda believed that the ocean was a giant lullaby god who could be seduced into seeing things her way and could bring forth great waves,” Babitz writes of her heroine, who isn’t too far removed from the woman who has created her. (Babitz’s novels are crossbreeds in which memoir is the dominant gene, fiction the recessive.)

Like Jacaranda, a peerless sybarite who dreamed of being an “adventuress-painter” as a kid, Babitz magnetizes. Her prose pops with bizarre aphorisms like this one: “People go through life eating lamb chops and breaking their mother’s hearts.” The author, who was born in 1943, is both wide- and gimlet-eyed, delighting in the beauty and magic of other people but ever-attuned to their failures and cruelties — especially Jacaranda’s. “She was twenty-eight. It was time for her to O.D., not get published,” Babitz writes, with typical blunt-yet-fizzy force. Even when cataloging ruinous behavior, particularly her heroine’s, Babitz never loses her buoyancy, her archness.

Jacaranda is a feral, sun-kissed bibliophile: “She had no sense of ‘sin’ and no manners,” Babitz notes. “She was the way she was by the Levens’ letting her alone to read” — her father, like the author’s real-life dad, is a studio musician for 20th Century Fox — “and she knew her way around Los Angeles like a Bedouin on his own two thousand square miles of trackless waste.” When she isn’t reading or surfing or painting surfboards or taking on admin gigs that don’t require her “to be in a regular office where they expected her to wear shoes,” Jacaranda is beguiling men and often sleeping with them. The details of these carnal encounters are mostly omitted, since Babitz does such an excellent job generalizing them: “What went on between men and women was based on a kind of enraged foundation that to Jacaranda could only be transcended through clashes-by-night sex.”

Babitz takes us to SoCal nightspots like Barney’s Beanery, where Jacaranda “drank beer and flirted with artists at night,” and the Bamboo Cafe, where she mischievously asks movie producers, “Are you really casting Cher as Medea?” It’s at the latter establishment that New York literary agent Janet Wilton, in town for business, approaches Jacaranda — who’s begun to publish magazine pieces, the first on surfing — about representing her. In a passage epitomizing Babitz’s gift for the piquant detail, the protagonist, stunned by this offer, struggles to make sense of what just happened: “Jacaranda tried to focus on Janet Wilton but all she could remember other than that voice” — earlier described as “cement” — “was that the woman was wearing ruby stud earrings.”

The hundred or so pages devoted to Jacaranda’s brief time in New York are peppered with wry observations about magazine editors (“They had to be at every birth of a new trend, every debut, every next year’s event, or person, or gang war”) and East Coast superciliousness (“Don’t say ‘far out’; even if you are from California,” her book editor admonishes). Crucially, this section of Sex and Rage also emphasizes Jacaranda’s pitiless self-reckoning. She cuts ties with the poisonous charmers she first met back home and re-encounters in Manhattan, like Max, who “smelled like a birthday party for small children,” and Etienne, “built like a lizard or a saluki.” She stops drinking two days before boarding the plane to New York, “terrified of going someplace and being drunk all the time.”

However raw and revealing this section may be, Babitz remains, as ever, piety-free. There will be no twelve-stepping for Jacaranda, for “she was too much of a surfer to go to A.A., so she just sat sobbing there in wonderment. No team sports for her.” She may not be part of a squad, but she has steadfast allegiances. During lunch with one of those overweening Gotham literati, Jacaranda thinks this: “She was awfully glad that L.A. didn’t have to be New York no matter what. No burritos. Or taquitos.”

Sex and Rage
Eve Babitz
Counterpoint Press
243 pp.

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California Split Is One of Many Altman Greats Hitting MOMA

Among the familiar monuments, those attempts to capture entire cities and eras within single movies, there’s a host of fascinating curios to be relished at MOMA’s six-week celebration of the films of Robert Altman, the crankiest great director America has produced. You can catch American Football, for example, one of three work-for-hire Altman shorts discovered by the talented filmmaker Gary Huggins in Kansas City junkpiles. Or Corn’s A-Poppin’,
a satirical 1956 musical about a harried popcorn bigwig. There’s Altman’s TV westerns of the ’60s and some woozy feature-length ’70s bafflements like Buffalo Bill and the Indians or Quintet, both cockeyed and frustrating and rewarding — both daring films that, if just a couple things that went wrong had gone right, might today be the toast of the festival.

Altman’s existential 1974 gambling buddy comedy California Split isn’t quite a curio, and it isn’t quite lost, but the only
legal way to see it these days — other than at MOMA’s screening this week — is in a compromised home-video cut: An issue over music licenses (read: money) resulted in three minutes of the film getting axed for its ’04 DVD debut. Toasted upon its release, the loose, low-key, engagingly slight
California Split has never been heralded as one of the key Altmans. But the few things it does — friendship and disappointment and the drab and desperate thrill of the gambler’s life — it does superbly.

At times it plays like an improv exercise, the incidents of its story nothing more than prompts for the leads to respond to. Since those leads are Elliott Gould and George Segal, both at the height of their powers, that’s not a problem at all — they’re playing charismatic rogues who groove on each other’s presence, and it feels like a top-shelf pleasure for us to groove along, too. Knocking back beers, wagering on bullshit, soft-shoeing through boozy parking-lot sing-alongs, these two generate an offhand sublimity as affecting as it is hilarious.

One of the film’s many peaks comes
after an explosion from Segal’s character,
a depressive editor in hock to some gangsters, as all comedy gamblers must be. Gould’s cheerier, more flippant rogue has vanished for a few days, leaving Segal’s man to face his troubles alone. Gould returns, sombreroed and chipper, only to be soundly upbraided. This is the third-act
crisis that, in most romances, would require a miracle — and some complicated plotting — to bring the leads back together. Here, Gould urges Segal to let his rage go for just one moment and to watch. Then he wins Segal back with 90 seconds of exquisitely dirty clowning. Segal at first resists, shaking Gould off, unwilling for reasons of pride to be lifted out of his solo self and back into their heady bonhomie. But Gould is irresistible, lifting Segal to the scene’s second explosion — of free and wild
laughter.

(Reconciliation through daft performance is not unusual in Altman: Recall Tom Waits’s compliment to Lily Tomlin in Short Cuts, as their married couple drinks and sings and digs into her canapes: “You make food look like a little show down there.”)

That’s followed up by a desperate trip to Reno and what might be the most exciting evocation in cinema of the thrill of a lucky streak. As always, Altman crowds his frame with faces and his soundtrack with chatter, captured on a new eight-track system first developed for this film. The real gamblers hunched over a high-stakes poker table
are introduced in a running speculative monologue from Gould every bit as tart and hilarious as Barbara Stanwyck’s rundown of potential suitors in The Lady Eve. The
finale is a heartbreaker, improvised on location, a stab of truth about how getting what you want is often less satisfying than the wanting itself.

But the glory of California Split isn’t its downbeat ending. It’s the sense that Altman’s camera is just happening to observe life that would be lived even if he weren’t capturing it, just as his microphones seem to luck into incidental dramas. Before it pairs up Gould and Segal, the film studies busloads of poker players in a miserable ballroom something like the way an old nature film might: In their habitat, they scratch and carp. The leads catch the camera’s attention, it seems, simply because they’re the most dynamic — and predatory — in this pack.

“Behavior was at the center of his interest,” writes Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan of California Split in Altman, a lavishly illustrated new hardcover. In these pages in 1990 Gary Giddins noted that Altman’s Vincent & Theo “is less concerned with stockpiling facts than canvassing an accumulation of insights through the crafting of a time, place, and mood that allows the Van Goghs to leap out of history in all their ungainly glory.” Today, the then-contemporary early ’70s of California Split also seems almost crafted to reveal such character insights: Note how the women, here, are literal hookers and helpmeets, fetching Gould a beer, pouring the boys their cereal, volunteering to sleep with Segal’s depressive gambler for free. The portrayal isn’t spiteful, as in later
Altman, but time has imbued these scenes with a subjectivity at odds with the film’s otherwise life-observed approach — they play, revealingly, like what guys like these in ’74 maybe wished women were like.

A scene where Gould’s character, the more amoral of the two, pretends to be a vice cop to chase off his sex-worker pals’ transvestite john feels, at first, nastier than it winds up being. Touchingly, he pretends he’s not noticed that the woman he’s terrorizing is actually a man, sparing him (or her) the kind of sexualized humiliation that Altman, in other films, seems to relish. Still, everyone’s bemusement is an uncomfortable reminder that not all misfits and losers were welcome in Altmanland.

But the film overall is the director’s most inviting, and possibly his most purely pleasurable, despite its sucker-punch wrap-up. Gould’s rake lives for “the action”; as he reads the faces of those Reno high-rollers, cracking jokes but also exhibiting awe, he’s happy just to be among them. Watching, we are, too.

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Vince Staples

With associates like Odd Future and Mac Miller, fellow Californian Vince Staples was bound to make it. The young emcee signed to Def Jam last year, a move he covertly announced on the liner notes of Earl Sweatshirt’s Doris. Staples has released a steady stream of projects over the last three years — four mixtapes and one EP to be exact — and is slated to drop his debut album with Def Jam, Hell Can Wait. The lead single off the project, “Blue Suede,” features the young emcee kicking it with friends and rapping on a roof, an eerie beat serving as the backdrop to his desire for a pair of “Jordans with the blue suede in ’em.” Can’t really beat rapping on a roof, can you?

Wed., Sept. 24, 11 p.m., 2014

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Aloe Blacc

Whether you recognize the name or not, the voice of Aloe Blacc is unmistakable. Blacc, a former rapper born Egbert Nathaniel Dawkins III from California, is the man featured on “Wake Me Up,” the mega-mega club hit he co-wrote with DJ Avicii. He’s also the behind the ridiculously catchy “I Need a Dollar” and the hat-tip to Elton John, “The Man.” Much like Stevie Wonder, Blacc has rich, soulful vocals that can be both deeply emotional and uplifting, as best heard on his latest album, Lift Your Spirit.

Tue., Sept. 30, 7 p.m., 2014

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Joyce Manor

How many times can we talk about that dang emo revival? If it is real, Joyce Manor pre-date it, making them the godfathers of your beloved movement. The California band are equal parts punk and melancholy, marrying nasally shouts with melodic song construction — doesn’t this sound like a Taking Back Sunday CD booklet from way back when? All jokes aside, the band put on an impressive live show. It’s gonna get sweaty, so maybe leave that BANE hoodie at home.

Mon., Sept. 15, 8 p.m., 2014

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Lil Debbie

Like a pan of burnt brownies tossed in the trash, gone are the days of Kreayshawn collaborations and White Girl Mob drama, clearing the smoke for the Bay Area baker Lil Debbie to pursue her solo career. Between Riff Raff duets and colorful music videos on singles like “Bake a Cake,” “Slot Machine,” and “Ratchets,” Lil Debbie has proven she’s more than just a party persona, but a cake baking, gambling, and drug-taking fashionista and lifestyle influencer. She added fitness guru to the list most recently after releasing “Work the Middle,” the lead single off her upcoming EP California Sweetheart Pt. 2, which is slated for release on August 5th. The single itself has a much spicier hook than typical LD tracks and an all around fuller sound. If it’s any indication of the rest of her new shit, it’s gonna be so hot you’ll need an oven mitt.

Tue., Aug. 5, 8 p.m., 2014